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The story of an empty block, a team of researchers, and a community of farmers in search of a farm.

For years, the block in Mildura sat unused. A mess of weeds and unruly plants was slowly consuming the land. It needed a bit of kindness and a few people who had the time to get their hands dirty.

That’s where a team of researchers came in. Working alongside a community of former refugees and a range of local organisations, they began the search for a solution that would help migrants gain access to unused farmland.

The project, which explores how culturally diverse groups engage with Australian environments, has taken them to Mildura and Robinvale, in the heart of the Sunraysia Region, spanning a corner of northwest Victoria and southwest New South Wales united by the Murray River.

At the same time, local resident Joel, a former refugee from the African nation of Burundi, was keen to get back to his farming roots and tend to a patch of land. He was a farmer without a farm. But he was not alone. Many new arrivals to the region have farming in their heart and souls, but no farmland to call their own.

Joel, the farmer from Burundi. Photo: Ananth Gopal

The researchers – Dr Natascha Klocker, from the University of Wollongong’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, along with then UOW colleagues Professor Lesley Head and Dr Olivia Dun, both of whom are now based at the University of Melbourne – were compelled to get involved.

“The Sunraysia Region is one of the most ethnically diverse pockets of rural Australia,” Dr Klocker says. “One third of horticulturalists in the area speak a language other than English at home.

“There’s a strong Burundian community, many of whom first settled in Wollongong or Newcastle but then came to Mildura because the housing is more affordable. Because it’s an agricultural area, they also felt a real sense of connection and excitement at the prospect of finding some land.

“But when they arrived in Mildura, they found that it’s not that easy to get into farming. Fruit picking work is available, but the Burundian community have a real desire to grow their own crops.”

The seeds of the idea were planted in 2014. Three years later, they have grown into a thriving community project.

A vibrant history

Migrants and refugees from post-war Europe have long populated the Sunraysia, seeking a new life in this horticultural region. They have contributed to making the area one of Australia’s key food bowls, with crops including wine and table grapes, citrus, almonds, pistachios and asparagus.

In recent years, the area’s predominantly southern-European migrant heritage has expanded to encompass migrants from diverse parts of the globe – including, in particular, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands. At the same time, refugees from war-torn regions of Africa, as well as Afghanistan, have resettled in the region. Many of these migrants and refugees come from farming backgrounds.

The researchers found that while there was an abundance of farming knowledge and skill amongst these migrants and refugees, there were considerable barriers to them actually growing their own crops.

“Unemployment and underemployment is a real issue for refugees because they often don’t have advanced English skills – although lots of them can speak four or five other languages. This makes it hard to get an Australian qualification. They want to work, but getting into the workforce can be really challenging. And this, in turn, makes it really hard to save enough capital to buy a block of land,” Dr Klocker says.

Dr Klocker, who used to live in Tanzania and speaks Swahili, took a strong interest in Mildura’s Burundian community – many of whom had spent years living in Tanzanian refugee camps after fleeing their homeland.

She also enlisted the help of her husband, Paul, who is from Tanzania and, she admits, “speaks better Swahili than me”. Being able to connect through the Swahili language provided deep insights into the Burundian community’s connection to farming, and desire to grow culturally important crops in Australia.

The Burundian community have a real desire to grow their own crops

Dr Natascha Klocker

When the research team met Joel in Mildura, their research project kicked into action. Hailing from Burundi, a landlocked nation bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joel and his family had spent eight years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. Joel and his wife had been farmers in Burundi and the urge to tend to the land was strong. In Tanzania, they continued to farm, with maize, kidney beans, cassava, bananas, and rice among their bounty of crops.

They were resettled as refugees in Australia in 2005, and lived in Wollongong and Sydney, but urban life was not particularly enjoyable for the family. In 2010, they moved to Mildura.

“I looked and saw [that] this town that is a town of farmers. So I thought it will suit me. Because I did not study, I don’t have a degree, I don’t expect to go and work in an office. My happiest thought [when arriving in Mildura] was to see the thriving farms. I said ‘this place is good for me’,” Joel says.

Farming is in Joel’s blood and one of the things that struck Dr Klocker when she met him was his love of maize.

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Joel with some of the crops he loves. Photo: Ananth Gopal

Joel, who has become a co-researcher on the project, grows beans and maize on any patch of land he can get his hands on – in his backyard, and in the grounds of the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council, where he works as a caretaker. But he ached for a bigger plot, and for a chance to show his farming skills to the broader community.

Joel was also concerned about others in his community, who were struggling with limited employment options. Not having access to farmland meant that they were losing their connection with their traditional crops and way of life. Consequently, their health was suffering.

“Many women here have become incapacitated because they were used to manual labour … some people are sitting around with nothing at all to do. But if they will be using their hands [farming], it’s like their limbs will be moving more,” says Dieudonne, another member of Mildura’s Burundian community.

“When the early generations of Italians came to Mildura post World War I and World War II, they were able to buy land and show their knowledge and skills,” Dr Klocker says. “These skills benefited the whole community. But now, newer arrivals often don’t have the finances to access land, although they’d love the chance to show people that they are really accomplished farmers. Some of the refugees we’ve interviewed have been farming since the age of five, they have a wealth of experience.”

So, along with Joel, the team of UOW and University of Melbourne researchers set about bridging the gap between the land and the refugees, trying to find a way for them to get back to that cultural connection, plant crops and stay active.

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Joel, the farmer from Burundi. Photo: Olivia Dunn

How does your garden grow?

Joel asked the research team for help in finding spare land that could be used by the Burundian community to grow their own crops. The researchers were aware that there were many unused blocks of land in the Sunraysia area as a result of the Federal Government’s 2008-09 Murray-Darling Basin Small Block Irrigators Exit Grant Package, in which farmers were paid to walk away from their land, and forbidden from irrigating the land, during the height of the drought that plagued the region.

So the researchers set about trying to match landless farmers to unused farmland.

The team took their cause to a meeting of Sunraysia stakeholders – including the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council; Sunraysia Local Food Future; Mildura Development Corporation; Regional Development Victoria; Agriculture Victoria; the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; Mildura Rural City Council and the Sunraysia Institute of TAFE.

Out of that meeting, Sunraysia Local Food Future launched the Food Next Door Project, which promotes the importance of growing, preparing and eating fresh local produce, and brings budding farmers together with spare blocks of land. A local business, Sunraysia Produce, offered one acre of land to Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian Community Group – and together they formed the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, a pilot initiative of the Food Next Door Project that would put the research into action.

Located on one of Mildura’s busiest roads, the land is the perfect place for the Burundians to showcase their farming skills and create crops that the entire community can see and enjoy. Dr Klocker says this is a great place to start, but adds the Burundians have grand ambitions.

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The block of land in Mildura. Photo: Olivia Dunn

“Our collaborators in Mildura have received other offers of land, and Joel and his community are keen to get their hands on to something bigger, but they are starting small and we will see where things go,” Dr Klocker says. “Free farmland is fantastic, but there are also lots of other expenses associated with starting a project like this – water, irrigation equipment, compost, insurance, and project coordination to name a few.

“We put out a request on the Sunraysia Local Food Future Facebook page, for people to help in any way they can, and we’ve had such a positive response. People have donated wheelbarrows, worm castings, compost, irrigation equipment as well as their time and machinery to clear the land and get the Burundian garden off the ground. But we’ll need to find more financial support for this project, to give it a chance to grow – both with the Burundian community, and with other interested migrant and refugee groups.”

Sowing the first seeds

For their part, Mildura’s Burundian community, who planted their first crops in September, are relishing their ability to connect with their culture and with the land. They have set up a Facebook page, Sunraysia Burundian Garden, to keep people informed of the project’s progress. An irrigation system has been installed and the first harvest of maize and beans took place in early 2017.

Jean Paul, another member of the Burundian community, says farming is a source of joy and pride for the residents.

“When you plant your crops, whenever you are weeding, you feel happy. You feel happy because you have a life here in Australia. And also you feel happy because you have your memories of home,” he says.

When the early generations of Italians came to Mildura post World War I and World War II, they were able to buy land and show their knowledge and skills.

Dr Natascha Klocker

But the positive impact of the garden is not limited to the Burundian community. It is also an opportunity for Mildura’s established farmers to learn a thing or two from their new neighbours, a chance to form greater bonds over a shared love of the land. A local farmer, Dean, who has given his time and tools to the garden, says he relishes the new perspective that the Burundians have brought to the land he knows so well.

“I feel like I can learn from the Burundian people … I get as much out of it as what they do because they’re doing it in the soil that I’ve grown up with so I understand what this soil behaves like, yet they’ve brought their plants to it,” Dean says.

Dr Klocker and her colleagues will continue their research as the Food Next Door Project and Sunraysia Burundian Garden progress.

“The practical opportunity for the farmers to demonstrate their techniques and practices, as well as show us the crops they produce will also help us address our research questions,” Dr Dun says.

“Essentially, we are trying to understand how people from different ethnic backgrounds see the landscape in Australia, and how knowledge and skills developed in their countries of origin translate in the Australian context, especially as they confront Australian soils, weather, and growing conditions.”

Photo shows. Natascha Klocker who is behind a UOW-led project helping develop a community garden in the Mildura region of Victoria. The garden, which has been created largely with items donated from the community, will be tended to by the region’s extensive refugee population (largely from African backgrounds) who will use their plot to plant their native crops and get exercise.

Dr Natascha Klocker, pictured at UOW. Photo: Paul Jones

The researchers are also keen to explore the tangible impacts of this project on the Burundian community’s wellbeing, outlook, and sense of belonging. For migrants and refugees who are searching for a way to belong and contribute in their new home, access to farmland is an important way to create and grow that vital connection.

“For those who were farmers in their countries of origin, access to land for growing food matters, in many fundamental ways. And its lack is felt very keenly,” Dr Klocker says.

They hope the Sunraysia Burundian Garden will just be a starting point – and that the Food Next Door project will grow to provide a range of migrant and refugee communities with the land and opportunity they need to demonstrate their skills as farmers to the broader community.

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